Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Interview: Vic Davis And Six Gun Saga

Vic's always a terrific interview (thoughtful answers and wry humor FTW), so let me just get out of the way and let him answer a few questions.

Six Gun Saga used art assets originally intended for a rogue-type game that didn't work out. How far into the development process had you gone, and how long did you think about pulling the plug before you actually did? What was the mental process for going from a rogue-type game to an entirely different one capable of using the same art assets?I was pretty far along…maybe 40% of the architecture and UI coding. I like to lay out a framework and then stub things out and come back for them later. This is especially true of the AI hooks in my strategy games. This game didn’t have the strategic layer of AI that my previous games had, so I was doing a great deal more of the UI and data architecture.

My big stumble came because I confused playing a lot of poker mini-games in isolation on my kitchen table with actually testing how it fit into the digital game. At the core of almost every game is some “challenge” resolution contest. That’s what I have been calling them, at least, as I have gone through the design process over the last half decade. When two armies meet on the map how is the battle resolved? War gamers call this combat resolution and often add up combat values then twist and modify them and then consult a CRT (combat resolution table) with or without a die roll. But you need the same process when a gunfighter enters a saloon and wants to order a whiskey or engage in a gun duel out in the main street of a tumbleweed town.

For my Western Rogue-like I had imagined poker hands being dealt for a variety of games (i.e., 5 card draw and Texas Hold’em) and then special poker chips being wagered on the games. The chips themselves could have game modifying properties like bonus wounds, bonus experience, temporary stat enhancements etc. If you won the pot then you inflicted wounds in a process where you bought draws from wound decks where the wound distribution/combat effects were determined. Some decks offered big rewards but high risk, while others would be more low reward but low risk of getting something unexpected….like a gun jam. The skill system I devised for the player character was based on the four suits of playing cards and advancement allowed you to change the numbers/suits on cards dealt to you or your opponents, discard and draw new cards, and mess with the base mechanics in general. And this is where the trouble began. The overall effect was just too much unpredictability, and the general process of playing the hands wasn’t all that much fun. I could probably go back and salvage the system with a lot of work and re-conceptualization, but I ended up pulling the plug, at least for now.

The switch to the card based strategy game came after about six months of just having the art work sitting there staring at me. I basically had about a hundred images of outlaws, lawmen, gamblers and your sundry Old West locales, and I thought there has got to be a simple way to get these all interacting with each other to tell some stories. I’d already had the idea to call the game Six Gun Saga a long time ago, and since the name still fit, I just swapped out the mechanics.

This game seems to potentially appeal to a broader audience than your previous titles (which were both excellent, but tightly focused in terms of target audiences). What kind of PR changes are required for a game like this, where you want to cast a wider net?
I thought that at first as well. However, I’m not so sure that I’m going to get that result after I launch the game. At its core there is still a deep strategy game element to Six Gun Saga. The resource system is highly streamlined and the board is as well. Basically, you get dealt some cards and the agony is deciding how you want to use them. The board is a three by three grid that sits in front of each player and you can only move your “posses” up or down the channels unless you have a card that lets you move laterally or diagonally one time, or a card in the “posse” has a very rare special ability that allows lateral or diagonal movement. The rigid movement rules combined with the limited number of posses that a player can have at any given time makes for some really fun tactical interaction. At least that’s my experience playing it on the tabletop with a crude prototype. When you add to the system the ability to set up hidden ambushes on your side of the channels, then you have some extra added minefield type tension. There is a real ebb and flow, feint, move and counter move feel that I am shooting for the mechanics to provide.

Is this going to open up the casual market? I’m not so sure. I think it’s going to function more like an appetizer for the bigger entrées on my menu like Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum. At least that’s the rationalized strategy that I’m going with for now. :-)

The settings of your games seem to utilize under-used themes (post-apocalyptic, Hell, and The Old West--okay, maybe Hell isn't underutilized, but the bureaucracy of Hell certainly is--LOL). Do you have any specific considerations in mind when selecting these locations, or are you just creating what you want to play?
I take the path less trodden on purpose. I think it fits the “fill the niche” strategy that I’m trying to survive on. I’m the kind of guy, though, who always did play (and still plays) the core nerd games growing up ( D&D, WW II board games like Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, ASL etc.), but always wondered what this Gamma World thing was over here or what those guys with the Steampunk game were doing over there in that corner. I’ve also found that the older I get, the less the generic fantasy setting grabs me. I just finished reading Glen Cook’s Black Company series in its entirety. I haven’t had that much fun since my last Jack Vance binge. It’s a clever and wonderfully constructed alternate reality that completely pulled me in with not a dark elf in sight. I think gaming needs more of that type of thing.

What are the chances of ever seeing a port of Six Gun Saga to mobile devices (Android, specifically)? Now that I have an Android phone, it's clear that the standards for quality are generally pretty low, although there are a few excellent titles. It seems like an incredibly fertile market, though, and Six Gun Saga seems like it would translate very well to mobile device.
I just got a Sprint Epic phone myself. I had a 2003 Nokia that I brought into the local store and the guys at the desk were quietly chuckling about the museum piece that I had. So now I have to drag a lock and then press answer on this touch pad to answer a call when before I could just hit a button. I had to buy an anti glare screen protector to see the screen in bright sunlight. Listen, it’s a neat little portable computer that James T. Kirk would have chosen over his plastic communicator, but I think I really still miss my Nokia.

Curmudgeonly grumbling aside though I have the same feelings about these new generation mobile devices that I do about consoles and handheld game boys. I don’t think they provide the right environment for the kinds of games that I want to make. I always imagine somebody sitting down in their man-cave (although female strategy gamers are welcome too) in a comfortable chair after a hard day’s work and firing up my aggravating limited resolution games in a window and losing an hour or two to the despair of hard choices. Can you play a moderately complex strategy game on a hand held device? I say no. At least I don’t think you can enjoy it in the same way. I can’t fathom how I would start to adapt my first two games to that environment. Now, I see I’ve just beaten to death the biggest straw man in the world since your question is about Six Gun Saga. But, I really don’t have any personal interest in the mobile market. You could probably adapt it but I don’t think the Old West theme is going to make it a big seller. I’m honestly not expecting the PC download sales to be spectacular. A Magic the Gathering app might make some money at $0.99 a pop.

So the answer to your question is no; basically, because I don’t like the game experience that you get from a handheld. But is Android a fertile market? It will be for a few devs who get in quick with stuff that catches on. But, like the iPhone market, it’s going to be gold rush and then gold bust for the vast majority of devs. I’m not agile enough or entrepreneurial enough to compete, so I’ll sit it out like I always do. I do think the iPad is probably going to be a nice platform, but I’m going to miss that boat because I’m not a Mac guy.

You've mentioned that Six Gun Saga is coming out a lower price point than your previous games. What kind of effect you expect this to have on sales?I’m not sure. It’s a test really to see if a smaller scope game and a lower price can generate good revenue and hopefully get potential customers to try my bigger strategy games. Six Gun Saga is going to have had over a year of development time (not counting my failure before re-conceptualization) and a hefty chunk of money invested in art, UI and music. Of course everybody knows that you don’t price a good based on what it costs to make. You price it on what somebody is willing to pay given how much supply you have. I’ve been toying with the thematic Old West price of $18.88 or the more psychologically attractive price of $14.95. You don’t want to go too low because the perceived value takes a hit unless you are doing a Steam sale, apparently. Six Gun Saga has a lot of replayability and I think the core mechanics are fun and challenging. It hasn’t got the epic scale that my previous efforts have attempted, but that was one of the project goals…..a play a game in 30 minutes type of thing.

With this being your third game, and a fourth one in the works, are you secure in the full-time indie developer model? Is this a lifestyle that you can see sustaining indefinitely, and do you have additional game ideas on the list to keep you engaged well in the future?
The magic 8 ball says: Better not tell you now. :-) I’m going to have to adapt or die eventually. That’s true of everything. So I do feel the tide eroding the little foundation of security that I have now. I’ve put out two games that I’m really proud of and still get excited about when I take a look at how they turned out and what went into making them. I’m frankly astonished that they were finished, given that they represent about 5 1/2 years of work and maybe half a million lines of code. I’ve sold these on a model that’s just one peg up on the evolutionary scale from your basic share ware and developed them in an environment (Adobe Director) that few are still using and probably doesn’t have much life left in it….although I do really like it and feel very comfortable with it. It’s and underdog with a chip on its shoulder and that describes me to a great extent. I’d like to get a few more games out of it since it still does what I need it to do and I don’t have to reinvent the wheel when I need to put a dialogue box up to ask the player to choose something .

The lifestyle is great as an indie dev. I set my own hours and can steer a course wherever I want to go. So I’m going to miss that when the curtain finally falls (and it will)…..even if it’s because I’ve grown tired of it and want to go do something else. I’m working on escape plans and fall back scenarios…that’s what any good strategist does.

At some point, are you exploring the possibility of appearing on Steam/Impulse, or are there restrictions to use those services that just don't make sense for your business model?
I’ve thought about it and waffled back and forth, and even sent some emails. I also wonder sometimes if maybe my games are too niche and too clumsy. I don’t really feel like I belong. I know a lot of devs have done really well financially with that approach, but I’ve got a psychological hang up about the whole thing. I’m a contrarian at heart. It’s the allure of the Gamma World type thing. At this point I like marching to my own drummer, even if it is into the post-apocalyptic bone yard or off a cliff.

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